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Erotic Republic

Iran is in the throes of an unprecedented sexual revolution. Could it eventually shake the regime?

When someone mentions Iran, what images leap into your mind? Ayatollahs, religious fanaticism, veiled women? How about sexual revolution? That's right. Over the last 30 years, as the mainstream Western media has been preoccupied with the radical policies of the Islamic Republic, the country has undergone a fundamental social and cultural transformation.

While not necessarily positive or negative, Iran's sexual revolution is certainly unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian diaspora are shellshocked when they visit the country: "These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city," a British-Iranian acquaintance recently told me upon returning from Tehran. When it comes to sexual mores, Iran is indeed moving in the direction of Britain and the United States -- and fast.

Good data on Iranian sexual habits are, not surprisingly, tough to come by. But a considerable amount can be gleaned from the official statistics compiled by the Islamic Republic. Declining birth rates, for example, signal a wider acceptance of contraceptives and other forms of family planning -- as well as a deterioration of the traditional role of the family. Over the last two decades, the country has experienced the fastest drop in fertility ever recorded in human history. Iran's annual population growth rate, meanwhile, has plunged to 1.2 percent in 2012 from 3.9 percent in 1986 -- this despite the fact that more than half of Iranians are under age 35.

At the same time, the average marriage age for men has gone up from 20 to 28 years old in the last three decades, and Iranian women are now marrying at between 24 and 30 -- five years later than a decade ago. Some 40 percent of adults who are of marriageable age are currently single, according to official statistics. The rate of divorce, meanwhile, has also skyrocketed, tripling from 50,000 registered divorces in the year 2000 to 150,000 in 2010. Currently, there is one divorce for every seven marriages nationwide, but in larger cities the rate gets significantly higher. In Tehran, for example, the ratio is one divorce to every 3.76 marriages -- almost comparable to Britain, where 42 percent of marriages end in divorce. And there is no indication that the trend is slowing down. Over the last six months the divorce rate has increased, while the marriage rate has significantly dropped.

Changing attitudes toward marriage and divorce have coincided with a dramatic shift in the way Iranians approach relationships and sex. According to one study cited by a high-ranking Ministry of Youth official in December 2008, a majority of male respondents admitted having had at least one relationship with someone of the opposite sex before marriage. About 13 percent of those "illicit" relationships, moreover, resulted in unwanted pregnancy and abortion -- numbers that, while modest, would have been unthinkable a generation ago. It is little wonder, then, that the Ministry of Youth's research center has warned that "unhealthy relationships and moral degeneration are the leading causes of divorces among the young Iranian couples."

Meanwhile, the underground sex industry has taken off in the last two decades. In the early 1990s, prostitution existed in most cities and towns -- particularly in Tehran -- but sex workers were virtually invisible, forced to operate deep underground. Now prostitution is only a wink and a nod away in many towns and cities across the country. Often, sex workers loiter on certain streets, waiting for random clients to pick them up. Ten years ago, Entekhab newspaper claimed that there were close to 85,000 sex workers in Tehran alone.

Again, there are no good countrywide statics on the number of prostitutes -- the head of Iran's state-run Social Welfare Organization recently told the BBC: "Certain statistics have no positive function in society; instead, they have a negative psychological impact. It is better not to talk about them" -- but available figures suggest that 10 to 12 percent of Iranian prostitutes are married. This is especially surprising given the severe Islamic punishments meted out for sex outside marriage, particularly for women. More surprisingly still, not all sex workers in Iran are female. A new report confirms that middle-aged wealthy women, as well as young and educated women in search of short-term sexual relationships, are seeking the personal services of male sex workers.

Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that traditional values have completely vanished. Iran's patriarchal culture is still strong, and orthodox values are still maintained by traditional social classes, particularly in provincial towns and villages. But at the same time, it would also be a mistake to assume that sexual liberalization has only gained momentum among the urban middle classes.

So what is driving Iran's sexual revolution? There are a number of potential explanations, including economic factors, urbanization, new communication tools, and the emergence of a highly educated female population -- all of which are probably partly responsible for changing attitudes toward sex. At the same time, however, most of these factors are at play in other countries in the region that are not experiencing analogous transitions. (Indeed, a wave of social conservatism is sweeping much of the Middle East, while Iran moves in the opposite direction.) So what is different in Iran? Paradoxically, it is the puritanical state -- rigid, out of touch, and dedicated to combating "vice" and promoting "virtue" -- that seems to be powering Iran's emergent liberal streak.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that swept Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into power, the Iranian regime has promoted the idea of collective morality, imposing strict codes of conduct and all but erasing the boundary between private and public spheres. Maintaining the Islamic character of the country has been one of the regime's main sources of legitimacy, and as such, there is virtually no facet of private life that is not regulated by its interpretation of Islamic law. (Indeed, clerics regularly issue fatwas on the acceptability of intimate -- and sometimes extraordinarily unlikely -- sexual scenarios.) But 34 years on, Khomeini's successor has failed to create a utopian society -- a fact that lays bare the moral and ideological bankruptcy of a regime that is already struggling with economic and political crises.

This inconvenient truth is not lost on young people in Iran, where changing sexual habits have become a form of passive resistance. In defying the strictures of the state, Iranians are (consciously or subconsciously) calling its legitimacy into question. Meanwhile, the regime's feeble attempts to counter the seismic shifts currently under way -- such as its repeated warnings about the danger posed by "illicit relationships" -- only further alienate those it wishes to control. Slowly but surely, Iran's sexual revolution is exhausting the ideological zeal of a state that is wedded to the farcical notion of a utopian society and based on brittle, fundamentalist principles.

In New York, Sex and the City may be empty and banal, but in Iran, its social and political implications run deep.

Bobby Model/National Geographic/Getty Images

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